Sunday, December 12, 2010

Of "Secrets" and Transparency, Part I

Far too much has already been written about the December 3 meeting at the home of county councilman-elect Julian Rogers, especially by our local daily. The Plain Dealer has led the chorus denouncing what they so obviously enjoy referring to as the "secret" meeting that resulted in the agreement -- now in tatters -- among six members-elect to support C. Ellen Connally for president and Dale Miller for vice president. The vote was to have been last Monday but that was scuttled under the PD's intimidating bullhorn and angry spotlight.

There has been too little analysis accompanying the outrage, however, so a week later we offer our assessment of this tempest. We do acknowledge however, that the paper did offer what was likely a fair sampling of public commentary on its website, even citing two of our favorite bloggers, Anastasia Pantsios here and Jill Miller Zimon here.

Our first observation is to note that calling the meeting "secret" is inaccurate. There is no evidence that the organizers or attendees intended to keep knowledge of the meeting hidden. That this was never a goal is clear, given that councilman-elect Chuck Germana was told about the meeting beforehand but not invited, pretty much a surefire way to get the word out.

Further evidence that the meeting was not secret was that we were able to report its results almost immediately afterwards. Our informant was not at the meeting but had received the news from one of the key attendees who had called to share it. So even after the meeting there was no press for "secrecy".

In short, the meeting was "secret" only if you define secrecy as being not broadcast via press release or open to the media and general public.

A better characterization of the meeting is to say it was "private", in the sense of not being open to the public.

Did the meeting violate what Cuyahoga residents voted for when they passed the new charter? I don't know, although there are lots of folks who are screaming "YES". But do not count me among the presumptive mindreaders who now speak with precise authority about what voters wanted last November.

The result of that election was clear. The vast majority wanted change. Heck, even many opponents of Issue 6 and/or supporters of Issue 5 [not necessarily the same people] wanted change. It is a near-certainty that most of us wanted an end to corruption and nepotism, more honesty and openness, greater efficiency, more transparency, fewer executive sessions and an end to backroom deals regarding the expenditure of public funds.

Did we even discuss how the council president would be selected? Did we want less partisanship? Arguably, but the drafters and promoters of Issue 6 gave us a complete charter, crafted behind closed doors, that did not call for nonpartisan primaries or elections.

Let's be clear. We also wanted smarter government than the 19th century commissioner system and the six council members-elect have gotten off to a poor start in assuring us that we will get it. They could have found a better way to select their leadership, and they most certainly should have been more courageous about it.

In my view, council members should never have promised a public process, only a transparent one. The difference: the Democratic members had a right to caucus, and should have explained the circumstances under which it was appropriate to caucus. They should have then announced that they were going to caucus, worked our their leadership, and then announced the results. Transparency achieved.

The larger point that needs addressing is where we go from here. We are a fragile and fractured polity, and we are like the generals fighting the last war, with too little regard for how the landscape has changed. We will talk about this tomorrow.